WASHINGTON – A spokesman for President Bush dismissed Al Gore's criticism of White House economic policies, saying Thursday that "nobody pays a lot of attention to what the former vice president said.''
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer also brushed aside questions about a potential rematch between Gore and Bush in 2004.
"I think the question is do Democrats look forward to a rematch between President Bush and Al Gore?'' the press secretary said.
Fleischer tried to cast Gore as politically irrelevant a day after the former vice president delivered his latest salvo against Bush.
"America's economy is in big trouble and I'm worried our current approach is failing us,'' Gore said Wednesday at the Brookings Institution. He said Bush is lost in an economic wilderness, "racing in the wrong direction'' while critical domestic issues are drowned out by international affairs in the final weeks of the midterm campaign.
Gore, who is considering whether to run for the White House again, said the president should focus as intently on the faltering economy as he has on foreign affairs.
Replied Fleischer: "I don't know that any answer is necessary or any rebuttal is necessary. Nobody pays a lot of attention to what the former vice president said. The president is focused on the economic policies that will help create jobs and the best way to create jobs in the president's opinion is for terrorism insurance to be passed so 300,000 jobs can be created right away.''
Firing back, the former vice president chuckled and said, "I guess that's part of their effort to change the tone in Washington.''
In his second speech in just over a week harshly criticizing the Bush administration, Gore called for a short-term stimulus program that would include extended unemployment benefits and help for small businesses "to jolt the U.S. economy out of stagnation.'' He also suggested the replacement of some members of the Bush economic team.
"We've got an election five weeks from now and a lot of the most important issues don't seem to be being discussed very much,'' Gore said. Waiting for action by the new Congress next year could be too late, he said. "In the interim, a global recession — or worse — could have already taken hold.''
Gore also cited other priorities to be addressed, including costs for homeland security, possible war in Iraq and a short-term economic stimulus program.
Asked after his speech if Bush's tax cut should be reconsidered, Gore said Bush should follow the example of Ronald Reagan, who at the same point in his presidency reassessed his economic policy. "He ought to have an open mind and accept responsibility for the fact that what he thought would happen, what he said would happen ... ain't happening,'' Gore said.
The economic speech followed other recent Democratic efforts to shift the political debate from Iraq to the economy.
Gore cited the weak economy and declining financial markets and wondered how the president would pay for an Iraq campaign — as well as homeland defense, Social Security and Medicare.
In a Sept. 23 speech, Gore took on Bush policy on Iraq and terrorism. A number of other Democrats soon followed with their own public concerns on ousting Saddam Hussein.
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said: "I guess he's trying to get back in the dialogue. I guess he's trying to find some way to become relevant for 2004. But I think he's missed the boat.''
The Democrats' national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, said Gore's remarks "are going to stimulate an important debate on the economy in the midterm elections.''
Gore said Bush does not have to change his basic philosophy to address economic problems.
"I am not asking the president to abandon his ideology,'' he said. "I am suggesting that he should try to reconcile his ideology with the realities now being faced by the American people.''
He said the president has "tried to create the impression that our economic problems are primarily due to the terrorist attacks.'' But Gore said current economic policies have played a major role.
The president is "like a lost driver who won't stop to ask for directions,'' Gore said.
"The president clutches his old plan and continues racing in the wrong direction, farther and farther into the economic wilderness,'' Gore said, "with the fate of nearly 300 million Americans in tow.''